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Thursday, July 12, 2012

ASEAN Members Fail to Draft South China Sea Statement

PHNOM PENH — Southeast Asian ministers have failed to reach a common position on the maritime dispute involving the South China Sea. Senior officials emerged from a forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, unable to reach their goal of hammering out a joint statement representing the members’ views on the issue.


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, center, and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba shake hands before their trilateral meeting during the ASEAN Regional forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 12, 2012.


ASEAN foreign ministers have been attempting all week to craft a statement summarizing its members' position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. But when senior ministers emerged from the Asean Regional Forum Thursday - the pinnacle of this week’s meetings - disappointment was evident.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said it was “irresponsible” that ASEAN nations have not come up with a common statement.

“Whenever there are incidents, that’s actually the moment that we should reinforce our efforts, not be grinding to a halt," said Natalegawa. "This time last year we had a similar problem between Cambodia and Thailand - it was a more direct intra-ASEAN conflict, but it was not impossible to find a solution within ASEAN. And in this instance it’s, I find it perplexing, and to be candid and honest, really, really disappointing.”
Four ASEAN members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - claim overlapping parts of the South China Sea. China claims almost all of the sea and there have been frequent confrontations over the region. A decade ago, ASEAN and China agreed to work together to develop a code of conduct of operations in the sea. But China wants to settle territorial disputes with individual nations, not the bloc as a whole.

Earlier this week, ASEAN members said they had agreed in principle on “key elements” of a code, and would approach China about opening negotiations.

Late Thursday, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan indicated there is a chance of some sort of agreement on a statement by the end of the week. He downplayed the setback.

“But I think all the dialogue partners, all the major powers are still supporting and expecting ASEAN to take the leading role," said Pitsuwan. "In that sense I think they will have to give the space for ASEAN to move in the direction of constructive and positive and contributing to the process. This time it’s a hiccup within the ASEAN group. We could not find one common position on just one issue. The rest is O.K.”

Coming into this week’s meetings, analysts predicted tensions about the South China Sea would form a major part of discussions here.

This week also saw a dispute emerge beyond ASEAN’s boundaries. Japan lodged a formal protest with China, after Chinese vessels approached a group of small islands that Japan controls, but China claims.

This week’s meetings conclude on Friday. A leaders’ summit is scheduled for November.
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ASEAN Talks Focus on S. China Sea Disputes

PHNOM PENH — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined senior South East Asian officials for high-level discussions in Cambodia Thursday. Ministers attending the Association of South East Asian Nations’ meetings have sought to downplay friction between member states and China all week. Yet, behind the scenes, simmering tensions from maritime disputes continue to contrast with the ministers’ public assurances of mutual cooperation.

 
 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, listens to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, right, during their meeting at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 12, 2012.


Coming into this week’s meetings, analysts predicted tensions about the South China Sea would form a major part of discussions here. That dispute puts four ASEAN nations with competing territorial claims up against China, which claims most of the body of water.

But this week saw more controversies emerge, beyond ASEAN’s boundaries. Japan announced it had launched a formal protest with China, after Chinese vessels approached the Senkaku Islands, a set of remote islands claimed by both countries.

 Both Japan and China are dialogue partners-not full members of ASEAN. But the issue still came up during bilateral discussions this week.

"In light of the historical facts and on the basis of historical law, there is no doubt that the Senkaku islands are an ancient territory of Japan. Furthermore, Japan has maintained valid control over the islands,” said Naoko Saiki, spokeswoman for Japan’s foreign minister.

In a statement this week, the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh confirmed that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings. The statement says Yang stressed that the Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China, “have always been China’s territory since ancient times, over which China has indisputable sovereignty.”

Publicly, of course, both countries have said they will not let the dispute cloud their relations.

But for the Philippines, an ASEAN member that has tried to advance South China Sea discussions all week, it is another worrisome maritime controversy involving China. On Wednesday, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario drew a parallel between the Senkaku controversy and China’s role in the South China Sea dispute.

“It looks like they’re becoming more aggressive every day,” Del Rosario said.

This week’s ASEAN meetings are to conclude Friday.

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